The Met's European Paintings Rehang, Look Again: European Paintings 1300-1800
by Troy Sherman

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met's European Painting (1250-1800) galleries had for five years been in various states of closure before they reopened in November. A little while ago, I had the chance to spend a full 10 to 5 in them. The rehang seemed measured and prevailingly correct, although I don't have much memory of how these paintings were hung before. There are some straight-up foibles, like the modernist inclusions that mostly perplex: Picasso's early inheritance of El Greco's line, for instance, isn't exactly a justification for crowding the latter's gallery with odds from the former. (That's not to say, though, that I wouldn't trip my grandma to see a two-painting show with The Vision of St. John squared up against Picasso's Demoiselles.) Thankfully, the contemporary art was, as far as I remember, limited to an inoffensive little triptych of Bacon's cornered in an otherwise medieval room, plus a fantastic Kerry James Marshall put to very good curatorial use. In terms of the meat of what's in these galleries, there's little risk of overstating their power or significance. It's basically a truism that the Met's got prime rib collections. Though one could nitpick: they put out the wrong Caravaggio and crowded it; their Giotto is a little cute; one of the Dürers I didn't get and the other's a curio; Tiepolo was basically an installation artist, meaning his environments hardly ever work as "pictures," and in one of two instances they've been displayed as pictures at the Met. But that's nitpicking. Look Again (how the museum has, sort of lamely, branded the rehang) is unequivocally spectacular. Below are brief reflections on five particularly great paintings from among the hundreds.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara (German, ca. 1510)
The massing here is somehow off. Four figures clumped stiffly to the left—halved by a vertical halberd that's the scene's only straight solid thing—are thrust back and over by an arcing primary action (sword-swipe) which, reciprocally, they sort of decenter and minimize. All this seems in service of enframing Barbara, who's both small and big, knelt right at the picture's edge. She herself is a mess of visual contradictions, the total mass of her pointing pyramidally up but every comprising triangle (folded legs, clasped hands, necklace, bosom) plunging towards the ground, whether left- or rightwards. Maybe this signals some kind of correspondence between the earthly and the transcendent, but more so it makes for a ganglion of shooting planes much more complex than the corpulent Teutonic formality of Cranach's modeling initially suggests. Still, it's a complexity constrained, hemmed-in by the half-rhombus made up of executioner and attendants. Outside this, the landscape shifts and leans to accommodate the structure of these human actions.

Titian, Venus and the Lute Player (Italian, 1565-70)
It's all about how seamlessly, how completely this painting concentrates itself right in the face of the goddess. The musician's gaze meets the lakeshore where a hill starts cresting towards Venus. His lute shoots up the opposite way to parallel the fall of a distant mountain back towards her. A sword at his hip, dipping outside the frame, points there, as does a page of music, a mass on the bed, some clasps on his cloak, the cherub's widow's peak. Even the curtain, at its tip, lists just barely towards Venus's visage. And at the point where all these collide, there's listlessness, ambivalence—the goddess projects the painting's full force right off of its edge with a casual glance. She's art's proleptic grace and the deferral of its promise all in one figure. (The tension between Titian's handlings of paint in her body versus her background is a point of interest, too.)

Bartolomeo Manfredi, Saints Peter and Paul (Italian, 1620s)
Manfredi, to my mind, is the greatest of the Caravaggisti, though I might just think this because, as a resident of St. Louis, I've been afforded more time looking at his Apollo and Marsyas, with its equipoise and its light that pervades despite a centrifugal darkness, than at any other painting by a follower of the Roman master. In a crowded Baroque gallery, Manfredi's slightly later Saints Peter and Paul defeats, decisively, a very late work by his lodestar hung nearby. (Caravaggio's too-dark and structurally staid Denial of Saint Peter doesn't quite butt against its support in the way I feel his best pictures do.) Out from Manfredi's small double-portrait, the apostles' mirrored gazes imply a horizontal V, whose tips project infinitely out around their viewer and whose punctum lies in space, centered, just behind their heads. Their attributes, diagonally held, point towards this point too, while their shoulders slope each way away from it. The painting is a system of these Vs, shadow-soft diamonds refracting in depth. That a painting so ordered could also have so little weight—look at Peter's neck-crook or Paul's limp right hand—is Manfredi's brilliance.

Georges de la Tour, The Penitent Magdalen (French, 1640)
Last time I saw it back in September, The Repentant Magdalen (this painting's foil at the National Gallery in D.C.) left me a little stumped; it was all a darkness too dark to see, limning a figure so linear and Caravaggio-plump as to seem almost comically untrue. I felt that there was a problem with the face and how the hair fell around it, though the objects on the table did seem to network into an unassumingly complicated little cell. The Met's Penitent Magdalen clarified its partner for me, by way of being a bit better. De la Tour's power, it shows, is in the tension between the hardness of his geometry—an almost brute hardness—and the intangibility of his light. In the Met's picture (a rotation, essentially, of the one in Washington) Mary is a triangle stacked on a trapezoid and darkling, her head turned deep into the scene towards a flame and its reflection in a mirror. (The mirror, a black square holding a bit of saving light, is a metonym for the painting as an object and an experience.) Every one of her aspects, from the teacup-handle fingers to the parallelogram of a forearm to her helmet of hard brown hair, is solid and sharply, strangely limned in every ounce of itself. But the candle flickers doubt onto the thingness of all of these things. What's that finger with a gleam across it, that wrist with a bright spot of white? By way of the light even Mary's room is an involution, indiscernibly inside of itself. The things in this painting both are and aren't in equal measure.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Love Letter (French, early 1770s)
I've been struggling with whether Fragonard is a vice or a painter to be legitimately liked. Either way, the flush and throb of his few canvases at the Met outran, to my eyes, the firm seriousness of all of the pictures nearby by the guy whose sensibility usurped his (David). The Love Letter is a confection, but one whose sweetness seems justified by the unassuming crystallinity of its sugars' structure, if by nothing else. Fragonard was a master of juxtapositions that don't seem to be so until they explode into view, which is to say that this picture looks frivolously fast and instrumental until you notice how the swathe of wall behind the sitter sets off a play of strokes that comprises her garment, or how the sturdy greens of desk and cushion lock tightly into place a melting blue wedge of body. A crossbeam under her bench echoes the slow jut into substance of the corner of her desk; a thin slip of couch at the lower right edge serves slyly as a repoussoir.